We’ve all had that moment where we’re put in the spotlight and don’t know what to do next. Usually, it’s from our school days where the teacher asked a question and then looked for students who didn’t raise their hand. Or maybe you’re giving a presentation at work, and you’re hoping no one points out anything on Slide 4 because it’s one you had the most trouble with. 

We’re scared about these situations because we don’t want to admit we don’t know something. Even saying the words, “I don’t know” can be very emotional. It brings up powerful emotions we don’t know how to deal with, so we try to avoid situations where it could happen.

Admitting you don’t know something is not a sign of weakness, however. “I don’t know” is a powerful statement that can lead to a greater understanding of yourself and others. It’s what psychologists call intellectual humility, and it opens your mind to learning, makes you less judgemental, and helps you be a better leader. Let’s dig into this concept to see how you can apply it to your life.

Acknowledge the Gaps

You probably don’t know as much as you think you do, even about everyday objects. Pick up something you used today, such as a spoon, a computer mouse, or pillow, and try to describe how it works. You probably started strong but then trailed off. There’s a psychological term for that, the illusion of explanatory depth, which means you think you fully understand something that you don’t. 

We experience this illusion all the time: at work, in business meetings, at school, with friends, literally everywhere. It’s not that you’re lying about what you know, you merely think you already know it. We’re conditioned to believe that admitting a gap in knowledge is a problem, something to overcome, so we’re less likely to admit it.

Pitfalls of Not Knowing

Not admitting that you don’t know something can have a variety of implications. As a student, pretending to understand a concept when you don’t isn’t a big deal; you might fail a test. Misunderstanding the complex financial products that contributed to the market collapse in 2007 is another story. It had a massive ripple effect across the economy and society as people and companies took huge risks on these products without fully understanding them. And when they collapsed, people lost their jobs, seemingly-solid institutions went bankrupt, and millions were lost. 

Open Your Mind

Intellectually humble people are open to new experiences, are more curious, and okay with uncertainty and ambiguity. They can learn from opposing viewpoints and have more constructive discussions with people overall. They ask more questions to fill in their knowledge gaps and listen better to the answers. They’re also more apt to actively seek out advice and answers from other people since they want to benefit from others’ past experiences. 

Ask Questions

To identify your knowledge gaps, you’ve got to ask yourself the right questions as you reflect on the topic or situation. You may not like the answers you find, but it’s essential to hear them if you’re to be more humbly intellectual. Here are a few questions to ask the next time you find a knowledge gap: “what am I not seeing?”, “who was impacted by my knowledge gap?”, and “how did I respond to the gap?”

Teach Yourself

As the adage goes, you don’t know what you don’t know. To encourage your learning, and learning around you, take a lesson from teachers. When you teach someone else, you have to fill the gaps in your knowledge; otherwise, the lesson isn’t complete. 

You can do this even if you don’t have anyone to teach; explain concepts to yourself as you learn them. Get into the habit of self-teaching and take note of the knowledge gaps as you try to explain them. 

Ask For Help

Take the time to ask someone for help filling your gaps. It could be an informal chat with an expert or someone with more experience, or you could even seek out a mentor or coach if you’re looking for something more structured. These people know the right questions to ask and can help identify your knowledge gaps too. 

Be a Humble Model

The most significant factor in becoming more humbly intelligent is to start modeling the behavior. Admit when you don’t know something and show how you’ll find the answer later. For example, say, “I don’t know the answer, but let’s look it up.” If you’re a leader, you can take note of the item, follow-up on it later, and then bring it up again in your next meeting. 

Appreciate other people’s insights into a topic and tell them, especially if it’s contrary to your point of view. Further, be willing to change your mind after listening to others, show that you’ve changed it, and let them know when you do. 

“I don’t know” should never be treated as a sign of weakness. It’s merely the signal of a learning opportunity and something we should be willing to pay more attention to. Be more open to those signals and keep an open mind as you work, live, and travel.